On Saturday, America remembered the day it's never forgotten: Nov. 22, 1963. Everyone, as they say, can recall where they were when they heard the news that Kennedy was shot. Even if you weren't born, you can recall it: the motorcade, Walter Cronkite removing his spectacles, LBJ taking the oath of office, all the scenes replayed a million times in untold documentaries and feature films.
History is selective. We remember moments, and, because that moment in Dallas blazes so vividly, everything around it fades to a gray blur. So here, from the archives, is an alternative 40th anniversary from November 1963:
8 a.m. Nov. 2: Troops enter a Catholic church in Saigon and arrest two men. They're tossed into the back of an armored personnel carrier and driven up the road a little ways to a railroad crossing. The M-113 stops, the pair are riddled with bullets and their mutilated corpses taken to staff HQ for inspection by the army's commanders. One of the deceased is Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam. The other is Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother and chief adviser.
Back in the White House, President Kennedy gets the cable and is stunned. When Washington had given tacit approval to the coup, the deal was that Diem was supposed to be offered asylum in the United States. But something had gone wrong. I use "gone wrong" in the debased sense in which a drug deal that turns into a double murder is said to have "gone wrong."
Kennedy had known Diem for the best part of a decade. If he felt bad about his part in the murder of an ally, he didn't feel bad for long: Within three weeks, he too was dead. Looked at coolly, there seems something faintly ridiculous about cooing dreamily over the one brief shining moment of a slain head of state who only a month earlier had set in motion the events leading to the slaying of another head of state. The noble ideals of Camelot did not extend to the State Department or the CIA.
Unless you're a Vietnam scholar, you won't remember the pros and cons of an anti-Diem coup as argued in Washington through the summer and fall of 1963. They barely made sense at the time, and Kennedy's bewildered reaction to the Buddhist unrest earlier that year sums up the administration's grasp of the situation: "Who are these people?" he said. "Why didn't we know about them before?" "Big Minh," the general who led the coup, lasted two months before he was overthrown by another general. He moved to Thailand, where the American taxpayer picked up his tab, including for some expensive dental work.
But that was the way they did things back then. Find the most promising local client, before Moscow or Paris or Beijing does. As the classic realpolitik line has it, he may be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch. As I wrote a couple of weeks after 9/11, apropos the House of Saud and President Mubarak, "the inverse is more to the point: he may be our sonofabitch, but he's a sonofabitch." Trying to cherrypick local strongmen is a fool's game.
So, at a time when lazy leftists keep comparing Iraq with Vietnam and artful conservatives have begun comparing Bush with Kennedy, it's worth noting the big difference between the two men and their wars. At the Royal Banqueting House in London last week, George W. Bush gave one of the best presidential speeches of modern times. "Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability," he told his British hosts. "Long-standing ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold. As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found."
President Bush has repudiated half a century of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The State Department and the CIA no longer sign off on the Coup Of The Month the way they did in JFK's day — the CIA seems to be too busy covering its posterior to do much of anything, and the State Department evidently feels it's easier living with the old thugs — Yasser, Assad, the mullahs — than trying to spot the up-and-coming ones. But the president is right: the "temporary convenience" has long ceased to be so.
In this season of anniversaries, here's another one: the liberation of Grenada, October 1983. When Maurice Bishop deposed Sir Eric Gairy and set up a "People's Revolutionary Government," it was the first ever coup in the British West Indies. Coups breed coups. Bishop in turn was murdered by a dissident faction of his New Jewel Movement, which set up a new Marxist junta. Had the United States not intervened, it's easy to see how the habit might have spread — to Jamaica, and the Bahamas and St Lucia, and the rest of the English Caribbean.
In reversing Grenada's double-coup, America helped preserve the work of centuries in the region — the islands' toytown Westminster Parliaments with their wigs and maces and speakers, the quaint symbols of peaceful constitutional evolution that underline the difference between those countries and the likes of Cuba and Haiti. Replacing President Loon E Toon with General Sy Kottik gets you nowhere.
That's especially true given the realities of today's world when ramshackle basket-case states can pick up terrible weapons on the cheap. All that stands between an Islamist nutcase and Pakistan's nukes is General Musharraf and the handful of chaps he trusts. Ultimately, it's not enough — as the general understands. It's easier to organize a coup than to create the institutions of liberty, but the latter are the only real bulwark against the horrors of the age.
It would be nice to think the so-called "progressives" of the left might find this a worthy project. Instead, in London, they waved their silly placards showing Bush and Blair drenched in blood, even as the real blood of the British consul-general and others had been spilled in Turkey that day.
It's one thing to dislike Bush, it's one thing to hate America. But it's quite another to hate America so much you reflexively take the side of any genocidal psycho who comes along. In their terminal irrelevance, the depraved left has now adopted the old slogan of Cold War realpolitik: like Osama and Mullah Omar, Saddam may be a sonofabitch, but he's their sonofabitch.